Summer 2014: a year since George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin. Another summer of violence and justification: US shells incinerating Palestinian children, devastating UN refuges in Gaza, pounding Afghan villages, again. Another trial of another white man who says he was scared, who had to defend himself with a blast of ammunition against an unarmed black teenager – a womanchild this time, 19, in Michigan this time, shot through a locked screen door. Another police killing on the front pages of the New York tabloids: a big man, a black father, put in a choke hold, kneed in the back as he gasped for air, as he told cops he couldn’t breathe; extinguished for passing a cigarette to someone on a street in Staten Island. He may have been selling looseys, police said, and he refused to submit; they had to bring him down. Then they watched as he expired. “The perpetrator’s condition did not seem serious,” one stated.
Eric Garner … Renisha McBride … so many men, women, children in Gaza that even the most conscientious reporters stopped taking all the names.
We titled this book Killing Trayvons because although Martin’s profiling and death received extraordinary attention, they were crushingly ordinary, not only for black and brown youth in the suburbs and city streets of America but in the browner nations of the world, where the US and its clients or proxies stand their ground, claim self-defense, take preventive or pre-emptive action – the verbal sleights-of-hand are many – to deadly effect. As we finalized our work, the title became more grimly apt with each day’s news. Those acknowledged here hardly exhaust the body count.
If Trayvon’s killing was perversely ordinary, its hold on the national imagination was not. It rang an alarm, banged a drum, a hammer, a knell for so many more whose names are mostly unknown. We, therefore, offer this book as a commemoration, a warning and an incitement.
The commemoration, first, for Martin himself. Two and a half years since that rainy winter night in Sanford, Florida, we really don’t know much about what happened, and the stories, poems, polemics, police documents and court transcripts about the case presented here do not settle the matter beyond what was settled the moment George Zimmerman saw black and presumed Suspect.
We don’t know, for instance, if while talking to the police dispatcher Zimmerman used the term “fucking coons” or “fucking punks.” Writers here assert both; at trial, “punks” was the word agreed upon by prosecution and defense, though the audio forensic report from the FBI’s Digital Evidence Laboratory, included here, plainly states that such certainty is misplaced. We don’t know how the fight started, who threw the first punch or why. We don’t know who was screaming, wailing, calling for help, or if they both were. Zimmerman’s attorney Mark O’Mara, whose closing argument is excerpted here, showed the jury an animation that presumed to depict the fight, but that was as imagined as anyone else’s conjecture here as to who physically confronted whom in what way. Zimmerman told police at the scene he had been calling for help, a claim police then repeated as fact to some witnesses who believed it had been Martin screaming. At trial O’Mara told the jury that only one person cried out that night, only one could have; naturally, it was his client. But, again, the FBI rejected any notion of official certainty, and the prosecution did not offer other experts whose methods would meet generally accepted scientific standards.
We didn’t gather up the voices here to settle what must always be unsettled, unsettling. What dissonance there is among the offerings, what gaps in the story, is the story – of life, of death – and no neat tie-up would bring comfort, or that insipid concept closure, or let Trayvon live again.
Trayvon Martin, as bell hooks says here, was “just being a regular teenager,” walking in no particular hurry, chatting on the phone, on his way home during halftime of the NBA final – “anyone’s son,” to echo the title of Tara Skurtu’s closing poem, and he is dead. That ordinariness is partly what sparked the viral commemorations, the “million hoodie marches,” the countless symbolic and material remembrances, of which the artwork in this book is a signal example. Mimi Thi Nguyen, who is writing about the hoodie’s symbolism for a forthcoming issue of Signs, catalogued some of those memorializing acts in a public talk:
In mourning, militancy and mimicry, posed hoodie photographs – most often consisting of a simple frontal snapshot of a person in a hooded sweatshirt, hood up – proliferated in the aftermath of Martin’s murder. Tweeting the widely propagated photograph of the NBA’s Miami Heat – hoods raised, heads bowed and hands clasped – LeBron James tagged it: “#WeAreTrayvonMartin… #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice.” In addition to photographs of celebrities in hoodies (Common, Jamie Foxx, Sean Combs, Wyclef Jean, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, Arsenio Hall, CNN
contributor and journalist Roland Martin, LeVar Burton, US Representative Bobby Rush, the list goes on), others too sought solidarity through the same, seemingly simple act, including Harvard and Howard law students in front of ivy-covered buildings; elementary schoolchildren lined up along a wall holding bags of Skittles; “moms in hoodies”; New York state senators Kevin Parker, Bill Perkins and Eric Adams; New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn; former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm; attendants at vigils and marches; black-and-white drawings of a range of humanity published in a special issue of The New Yorker; even professional portraiture as protest art. Thousands more appear on Facebook pages like A Million Hoodies for Trayvon Martin and on Tumblrs (often tagged with #MillionHoodies), including I Am Trayvon Martin, featuring photograph after photograph – often snapped with webcams or mobile phones – of persons with their hoodies up. One well-trafficked photograph depicts a pregnant black woman in a hoodie gazing upon her bared stomach, marked with the words “Am I next?”
Ubiquitous and implicating the living with the dead, those photographs, Nguyen observed, “gesture toward a serial murder, the continuing threat that is realizable at any coming moment.”
They gesture toward something else as well: a refusal to be next.
There is a reason, in the biting familiarity of memory and experience, that June Jordan’s “Poem about Police Violence,” written in the 1970s and included here, shot through cyberspace like a fire-arrow in the aftermath of February 26, 2012, and July 13, 2013.
It is not that the first date signaled some newly dangerous season for black youth, or the second some newly low threshold of impunity for their police or quasi-police killers. Although the Stand Your Ground-style laws of Florida and most other states were much discussed following the killing, and although those laws are noxious for essentially issuing a license to kill, George Zimmerman didn’t invoke a Stand Your Ground defense in court. He didn’t need to. Like so many police and white, or white-ish, police stand-ins before him, he already had that license. All he had to do was say he feared for his life.
The anguish and rage that followed the not-guilty verdict, and echo here, were thus not so much responses to the particulars of the trial as they were expressions of pent-up fury over the long list of dead and maimed black men, women and children whose own fear counted for nothing, whose own life was deemed cheap, whose own innocence was never presumed; and over the insecurity and suspicion that dogs the living – black youth especially, for whom there seems to be no safety, no sanctuary, no ground on which to stand.
Other names, other stories, course through these pages, many Trayvons. This book is their commemoration, too. In that sense, it is also a warning.
Beware “the trick bag of the perfect victim,” Jill Nelson writes. The countless named and unnamed victims were not all minding their own business, not all sober, not all good-looking teenagers with no criminal record. At least part of the mass outpouring of sympathy for Martin and his family relates to his image as a good kid, handsome, armed with nothing but Skittles and sweet tea. The white power faction, the right-wing media, the Zimmerman defense, all strove to undermine that image, to recast Martin as a pothead and troublemaker. That was racist and conniving (also emblematic, see Alexander Tepperman’s detailed analysis of the criminalization of a generation), but the crucial political point is that it shouldn’t have mattered if Martin were walking along carrying a bag of reefer or a rap sheet that night. Just as it shouldn’t have mattered if he threw the first punch. Such an act might have been wrong, it might have been stupid, but the brawling of boys and men is a hardy staple of the Rugged Individual story America tells its children. It takes a jacked-up disdain for proportionality to conclude that execution is a reasonable response to a fistfight.
And yet … high or low, power teaches such disdain every day. Lose two towers; destroy two countries. Lose three Israelis; kill a couple thousand Palestinians. Sell some dope; three strikes, you’re out. Sell a loosey; choke, you’re dead. Reach for your wallet; bang, you’re dead. Got a beef; bang, you’re dead.
We call this book an anthology of American violence because killing has a social, not just individual context. It is as easy to make George Zimmerman a monster as to make Trayvon Martin a saint, but that’s a trick bag of another kind. Zimmerman might also be anyone’s son, America’s son, juiced on ignorance and fear, and dangerous like his country. He, too, is an ordinary man – straight, second-rate at most everything he’s tried, a schmuck with a short fuse, dim prospects and a white man’s unthinking sense of skin privilege.
In these pages Vijay Prashad likens Zimmerman to “a domestic drone.” Dave Marsh, quoting Chester Himes, likens him to “a blind man with a pistol.” Thandisizwe Chimurenga compares his action and treatment with that of Johannes Mehserle, the Oakland transit cop who killed Oscar Grant. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement breaks down statistics indicating that every twenty-eight hours police, security guards or Zimmerman-style vigilantes kill a black person. D. Brian Burghardt combs public records to answer the question “How many people are killed by police every year?” and finds there is no ready answer, no national database (he’s creating one from the ground up), no open accounting of what, in the number of dead, might amount to a 9/11 every year. President Obama says, “Trayvon Martin could have been me thirty-five years ago,” but a lot has happened in those intervening years. Cornel West calls Obama “a global George Zimmerman”; the president profiles brown people as enemies every Tuesday for an assassin’s hit list.
When it comes to Zimmerman, the symbolic associations are thick, and true for that thickness, but symbols aren’t put on trial (or shouldn’t be); individuals are. That Zimmerman was afforded the presumption of innocence, due process and the benefit of reasonable doubt only seemed strange because so many people – so many who are black and brown, and especially so many who are labeled monsters before any evidence is considered – are not. The writers in this book differ in their assessments of the trial. Beyond particulars, however, as Bruce Jackson writes, “a criminal trial is never about the truth.” Except within the narrow limits of the law, it is not really about justice either. On August 7, 2014, Renisha McBride’s killer, Theodore Wafer, was convicted of second-degree murder; he faces possible life in prison. “A life for a life,” some onlookers cried out afterward in satisfaction, but that isn’t justice; it is a legal victory for the state. Justice demands more than an exemplary conviction and another body for the world’s largest prison system.
Justice demands restructuring. So, finally, this book is an incitement to justice.
A country that exports violence all over the world and is its biggest jailer, that schools its people in punishment, inequity and racism, that tortures in defense of liberty, that lets presidents get away with war crimes and enables Israel in mass murder – this country will have police who kill at whim; it will have copycats like Zimmerman, and they will get away with it again, unless confronted by a mighty resistance.
The political legacy of the Martin killing is that extraordinary No, of which every contributor to this book is a part.
It is the Dream Defenders in Florida, who occupied the statehouse and whose director, Phillip Agnew, vowed in a speech excerpted here: “We will not be silenced. We will not be stopped. We will not be bought.” It is in a national network of youth-led organizations and allies called Freedom Side, convened by the Dream Defenders and others on this year’s fiftieth anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer to drive a new generation’s train toward justice. It is in nationwide organizing against the New Jim Crow. In people’s efforts, sampled here by Dani McClain and Jordan Flaherty, to think and act together on safety, on security and the role of the state. In the ceaseless challenge to “understand our brains on race,” as McClain quotes Maya Wiley; to reject the prerogatives, however masked, of a heritage embedded in conquest and slavery; and to embrace our parallel common inheritance of resistance. And it will have to grow wider and go deeper.
As we go to press, police in Ferguson, Missouri, say they will not release the names of the officers who killed Michael Brown on August 9 and left his body lying in the street for four hours. Brown was black, 18, unarmed. Police have received death threats, they say. They seem surprised. Ferguson has erupted in fire, looting and broken glass, but it was a battleground before a single window shattered. Police/soldiers have descended with high-powered weapons and full military gear. The FAA has declared the St. Louis suburb a no fly zone. “We care about who killed Michael Brown. We don’t care about Afghanistan,” a youth told reporters soon after the shooting, but those are sides of the same coin. There is no peace.
This essay is excerpted from Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (CounterPunch Books).
Kevin Alexander Gray is a civil rights/liberties activist in South Carolina, a print and radio commentator and the author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike: the Fundamentals of Black Politics (CounterPunch Books). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His books include: Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press (with Alexander Cockburn), Born Under a Bad Sky and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (with Joshua Frank). He can be reached at: email@example.com.
JoAnn Wypijewski is a journalist and editor in New York. She writes the Diamonds and Rust column for CounterPunch magazine and “Carnal Knowledge” for The Nation. Her latest book is What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #Me Too: Essays on Sex, Authority and the Mess of Life. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.